How the West Was Won by Clint

How the West Was Won by Clint

There have been numerous articles and reviews that have tackled the obscurity and the powerful kick of Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Western, Unforgiven. Countless film critics and film scholars have used Unforgiven as the prime example of an anti-violence film, a film that used short yet effective spurts of bloody action to convey a message about the theme of violence. However, oddly enough, both Clint Eastwood David Peoples, the screenwriter, have admitted that when the film was in the making, the thought of it being an anti-violence picture hadn’t crossed anyone’s mind. The theme was simply thrown into the mix by those that went to see the film and wanted to write something important, something that would make the audiences flood the theaters and would have their names in the headlines. So my question is, 26 years after its release, what is Clint Eastwood’s Western really about? What has changed over the course of these last two decades?

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Clint Eastwood as William Munny, and Morgan Freeman as his partner, Ned Logan.

I remember watching Unforgiven as a soon-to-be-teenager and thinking that along with No Country for Old Men this was the scariest movie I had seen up to that point. And I must admit, it still holds up very well. It is still a wonderfully directed gruesome Western that speaks volumes on a multitude of difficult topics. What starts out as an odd revenge storyline about three desperados, a young unexperienced hillbilly accompanied by two veteran murderers, who set out to kill a couple of men accused of cutting up a woman in a small town in Wyoming called Big Whiskey, soon turns into an engrossing moral tale that confronts the depths of evil with the scarce oases of goodness during some of the most troubled times of the American West, namely the days after the shocking assassination of President James Garfield in 1881. It is here that a lot of critics like to use the word ‘revisionist’ – the word ‘revisionist’ has been used countless times in recent years in order to describe different modern-day Westerns (think Hell or High Water, 3:10 to YumaTrue Grit), but has it been used right? In my opinion, very few films fit the term ‘revisionist’ since very few films are powerful enough to modify an entire genre, and when they do modify it, these modifications last a long time, preventing other films from crossing those established lines (think the way Goodfellas changed the gangster genre) and setting new ones. Unforgiven is, without a doubt, one of the few Westerns, along with Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller from 1971, to actually overturn the laws of the Western genre and create something remarkable, something that transcendences the limits of the genre and goes beyond the rules established by its predecessors, viz.  John Ford, Anthony Mann and Howard Hawks in the 1940s and 50s. The way Unforgiven unfolds resembles a drama more than a Western and that is the first point I aim to make; Unforgiven‘s structure.

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A world of violence.

The structure of this film is incredibly straightforward and what is so striking about it is the fact that in a story that is just as concerned with the past of its characters as it is with their present, there is no use of flashbacks. The whole premise of the film is that two ruthless killers turned farmers, William Munny and Ned Logan (Eastwood and Morgan Freeman),  set out on a journey that will force them to confront their own past and will require them to go back to their old criminal habits. Usually the temptation to rely on flashbacks in a situation like this would be very strong; in fact, Eastwood as a director used flashbacks a multitude of times, most notably in High Plains Drifter, an earlier picture of his about another tormented soul who must face his own demons. Yet here, Eastwood clearly decided to stick to the timeline of 1881 and this decision is what brings out the film’s best qualities. As viewers we are only allowed to imagine the past of the characters on-screen, rather than see it first-hand. If a character recalls a specific memory we can only guess whether this memory is true or not, whether it is accurate or not, whether the character really is who he says he is, which brings me to the most important revisionist quality this movie holds – the theme of storytelling.

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Gene Hackman as the unmerciful sheriff of Big Whiskey.

The Western tradition has been built on the myth of the Wild West. The glorious days of robbers robbing banks and trains, cowboys fighting Natives and gunfighters squaring off on the streets of most American towns. But that’s also where the genre has stumbled, often too concerned with the myth rather than the actual story. And it is here that Unforgiven steps in to change the Western landscape for years to come. In fact, aside from William Munny, our protagonist, and Little Bill, our antagonist, every other character that we see on screen is more concerned with their own myth rather their actual story. English Bob (played by Richard Harris), for example, an English gunfighter that has arrived in Big Whiskey to collect the bounty for the two criminals who have scarred one of the local prostitutes, is nothing but a big lie dressed up in fancy clothes and armed with a number of expensive, custom-made pistols. He brings alongside a biographer who is charged with the task of writing a book about English Bob’s adventures in the Wild West and the way he spent his later years rescuing innocent women and children from the hands of violent, blood-thirsty men. When he is confronted by Little Bill, the local sheriff who doesn’t tolerate armed strangers in his own little town, English Bob is unable to separate himself from the myth. Eventually, the myth of English Bob as the saviour of the innocent results in his downfall and Bob ends up in a jail cell with his face bloodied. Why? Because Little Bill knows English Bob’s real story. Little Bill, as mentioned before, is one of the two characters who prefer to hold on to the story rather than the myth. A man like Little Bill despises the kind of English Bob, the kind of men who need to build their own myth in order to feel better about themselves. Similarly to Eastwood’s Munny, Gene Hackman’s Little Bill is nothing but a brutal man, a product of the Wild West who’s seen his fair share of pain and violence and who will not stand the lies of cowards like English Bob. Here, fact meets fiction, and fact takes over, fact wins, as Little Bill turns English Bob into a bloody pulp and ridicules him in front of the whole town, sending him back to England beat up and unarmed.

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English Bob’s downfall.

However, as complex as Little Bill is, I would be at fault if I did not go in depth about Eastwood’s character of William Munny, the definite factual character whose whole life has been avoiding his own infamous myth, the one of a stone-cold murderer of anything that ever crawled the face of the earth. When we meet him, Munny is at his strongest; he’s sober, he hasn’t fired a gun in over ten years’ time, he has two children and is a loving widower who spends his days watching over the grave of his wife, Claudia. And yet, in the face of the young hillbilly named Schofield Kid who comes to recruit him for the killing of the two criminals, Munny is nothing but a pathetic mess; a dirty old man, a pig farmer who’s got nothing going in life, a joke, a dead myth. Eastwood does a great job at portraying a man who has learned to embrace the present and forget the past. He does not mention his wrongdoings unless someone drags it out of him. The scenes that stand out the most are when Munny prepares himself for the journey by retrieving his old pistol and practicing after all these years with a coffee can. To the viewers’ surprise Munny can’t hit. He empties the entire clip and we see the disappointment in his and his children’s eyes. Following this scene, is the scene where Munny has a hard time getting on his horse, which becomes a recurring joke in the story, as his horse throws him off numerous times and we end up realizing that Munny is the embodiment of change; he is a man who has learned that the past must be left behind, that the past does not need to hold a special place in our lives unless we want it to, and yet…!

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Munny’s new life.

And yet Munny is the only character, along with Little Bill, that is still capable of being just as ruthless and cold-blooded as he was in his younger days. When called upon, Munny , unlike his long-time partner Ned, is the one who can still kill a person without batting an eye. Therefore, one might conclude that the ghost is chasing him, rather than the other way around. Munny is the victim of his own myth as he quickly finds out that no matter what one does, how one lives for a certain period of time, how one tries to introduce new values into his own life, the past will always expose a man’s true colors, just as it exposed English Bob’s cowardly side and Little Bill’s experienced one. The scars that haunt men like Munny are just as deep as those that have been inflicted on the poor prostitute’s face. When Munny finally meets the victim of the attack, the reason for his journey, the reason he was forced to retrieve his old habits, he is at a loss for words, and after a while admits to what we all found out throughout the course of the film: ”What I said the other day, you looking like me, that ain’t true. You ain’t ugly like me, it’s just that we both have got scars.” 

While most Westerns have focused on the glamour, the appeal and the myth of the Wild West, Unforgiven decided to focus on the stitches that cover the deep wounds, the blood trickling through these stitches, the imperfections that have accompanied every man and woman who were forced to survive in such a brutal environment. Munny and Little Bill are on opposite sides of the conflict; one is there to set the rules straight, while the other is there to break them. However, if we take a close look at both of them, if we study their actions and their motives carefully, are their methods any different? Are their survival strategies divergent? Are these two men products of fact or fiction?

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Two different kinds of scars.

 

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Long Distance Call

Long Distance Call

Relationships. Ugh. Just the sound of this word in a cinematic context makes some people roll their eyes. What else can be said about relationships in movies? After all, we’ve seen all of them, all of them under the same light. Mostly negative. Think Revolutionary Road, American Beauty, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Blue Valentine. Think in the line of thoughtful tearjerkers such as Carol and Far From Heaven. Even comedies. Mostly comedies, crappy ones. As a moviegoer, you’ll think to yourself: enough! We have seen all of them. We know what a relationship is. We know the different forms they assume in movies. There is the sex-driven one (Love & Other Drugs), the forbidden one (Brokeback Mountain), the subtle one (Out of Africa), and finally the goofy one (The Big Sick). Yet somehow, after all these years of world cinema, there is a very limited number of movies that mention one particular form of relationship: the long distance relationship. Sure, movies like Sleepless in Seattle and The Notebook tackled the specific form but I highly doubt any of us have taken those movies seriously, right? Now, let’s be honest, auteur cinema has never shown passion nor interest for this subject matter. Directors like Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Scorsese and Kubrick, and many others, as good and as artistic as they all are, interested in the human condition, human nature and whatnot, have never delved head-on into the depths of a long distance relationship. For most highbrow filmmakers, relationships are often considered an item that is to be used as background information for a particular character, eg. (Henry Hill’s relationship with his wife, Karen, in Goodfellas), so why should they be attracted to long distance relationships at all? Well, today I’m here to tell you about an Italian director who accepted the challenge at a very young age and successfully directed a beautiful film about this very subject. Today, I aim to pen down a few thoughts about the long distance relationship depicted in Ermanno Olmi’s I Fidanzati (1963).

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Liliana and Giovanni.

The late great Ermanno Olmi passed away earlier this month and I believe he did so as one of the most overlooked directors of all time, a true visionary and simply put, a brilliant artist who undeservedly suffered from a lack of popularity outside of Italy even after he won the prestigious Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1978 for his magnum opus, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, an exhilarating take on life in the Italian countryside in the late 19th century and the struggle of that particular community of outcasts and social rejects. In short, that’s who Olmi was for those of you who haven’t had the chance to study his work; a man of the people, a man interested in people and the mechanisms within each individual. He was a director who gave a heartbeat to every  single living thing and cared for his characters like no other artist of the neo-realist wave that took over Italy’s film industry post World-War II all the way until the early 60s. As to the film, I Fidanzati is one of his lesser known works, often overshadowed by the aforementioned Tree of Wooden Clogs and the newly restored Il Posto, Olmi’s second feature about a young man desperately looking for a job in Milan. Still concerned with Italy’s Northern industrialism and focused on the local working class, Olmi’s I Fidanzati (literally, The Fiances) tells the story of how a relationship needs to be worked at with care and tenderness in order for it to survive during hard times of separation and doubt, in order for it to grow even during long stretches of darkness and despair.

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The opening dance.

Well then, how does Olmi do it? Where does the magic lie? First of all, the setting. The opening sequence tells us everything we need to know about the relationship we’re about to follow: an empty dance hall slowly but surely begins to fill up with locals. Women and men of all ages start dancing to live music, and while the dance continues and the music becomes livelier by the minute, we meet the two protagonists, Liliana and Giovanni, looking lost and quite uncomfortable being around each other. The reason for this discomfort is revealed in a scene that incercuts with the dance sequence; Giovanni is notified of an available job promotion all the way down in Sicily, in a new factory department, and as a result he must leave immediately. So what is the secret to this opening? Olmi does not pull any punches, instead he aims straight for the jugular and decides to pose the first and most important obstacle that the two protagonists will try to overcome as the movie progresses: distance, an overwhelming physical distance that might threaten their engagement, and eventually, their wedding plans. Giovanni, in frustration, dances with a stranger, and so does Liliana. Their fear and preoccupation are expressed through the joyful practice of dancing, an element that will set the tone for the rest of the movie, an element that should be strictly considered for poetic purposes. Eventually, right before Giovanni’s plane leaves, the two of them dance for one last time. What follows afterwards is Giovanni’s trip to Sicily, and this is where Olmi’s magical trick takes place.

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Giovanni’s loneliness.

Giovanni is, in my opinion, one of the least predictable male characters I have ever witnessed on screen, and through this unpredictability bursts out a profound sense of humanity that you rarely see in films nowadays. Giovanni’s new life in Sicily consists of habitual-driven actions and routine. He awakens, has a cup of coffee at the local bar, goes to work, comes home, goes to bed, repeat. The separation is expressed through the prominent use of wide-screen shot empty locations; bars, streets, factories. Giovanni’s loneliness is a result of Liliana’s absence as only she could fill the empty spaces he finds himself in. His taciturnity is his shield: Giovanni is a polite, quiet and respectful worker who, as demonstrated through a use of flashbacks and jump-cuts, can also turn into a sensitive lover, a dear companion and a faithful fiancée. But all of these listed qualities exist and can be transmitted to the viewer only because of the physical separation the two young lovers are  subject to. Olmi builds a desolate, lonely and silent world around Giovanni, a world, or better yet, an island like Sicily that torments its own inhabitants with an unbearable climate, little to no nature and the same sort of industrial way of life as Giovanni encountered in the familiar North.

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Sicilian nights… nights filled with thoughts.

Giovanni in his free time embarks on short trips across the region to find meaning, a feeling of accomplishment, joy, anything. He visits churches, goes to mass, celebrates a saint’s day with the rest of the inhabitants of the same town he lives in, seeks out fellow Northern workers, writes letters and eventually– constantly thinks about Liliana. The director allows the two lovers to converse throughout the movie through flashbacks, so that their relationship, instead of suffering and feeling threatened, is actually built upon. All of a sudden this separation becomes the driving engine of the relationship as it enables both characters to experience loneliness and regret, two essential elements of a real, matrimonial relationship. Their love grows through the physical distance and through the isolated life that Giovanni is forced to lead on this remote island. During moments of fatigue and helplessness, Liliana’s voice-over echoes across the screen, thus demonstrating the multitude of ways Olmi goes about solidifying their bond, instead of weakening it. Unlike so many other films, most of them following the Hollywood relationship recipe, that try to weaken their characters by presenting them with new challenges (eg, how to resist another woman), new enemies, etc, Olmi poses the unnatural emptiness as the only obstacle worth overcoming. In other words, I Fidanzati is as much a film about endurance, and the strength of the human spirit as it is a film about a specific relationship.

There is a beautiful moment worth noting near the end of this 70-minute-long film; Liliana reads aloud a letter she’s written to Giovanni, where she tells him about the time she got his letter. She says: ”I felt excited and happy running up the stairs. But then suddenly that happiness frightened me.” It is as if this sudden change in her daily routine made her aware of the kind of burden this long distance relationship has put on her shoulders. Suddenly, happiness has become an exclusive feeling in Liliana’s daily life, away from Giovanni and his peaceful, reassuring presence. All of a sudden, this distance has become a thrill to her. A reason not to lose hope.

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Happiness in its purest form.

The Father

The Father

There’s a new movie coming out this year, which I’m particularly eager to see, entitled First Reformed starring Ethan Hawke in the role of a morally broken priest. As I sat watching the movie’s trailer I noticed a critics’ praise for it: ”A fierce film from Paul Schrader. One of the crucial creators of the modern cinema.” This positive remark left me quite surprised. Sure, I knew who Paul Schrader was; longtime friend of Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, director of one of the most important movies of the 90s, Affliction, director of the cult classic, American Gigolo, and screenwriter of Raging Bull and the Last Temptation of Christ. But as I read through his artistic credits I realized how little I had seen from him. The man’s body of work spans across four decades of fundamental shifts and changes. And that’s why I decided to dive into the man’s early body of work; to finally be able to comprehend the genius that stands behind modern cinema: Paul Schrader.

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Paul Schrader.

First of all, Schrader is in no way, shape, or form a remarkable director. Yes, that may sound odd since this post is dedicated to the artist himself. However, what I aim to focus on is the man’s voice, which comes through the attitude of his movies, rather than the form of the movies itself. Schrader has produced numerous films, especially in the last decade or so, but it is his early work that speaks volumes not only of Schrader as a man and artist, but about the society Schrader made these movies in, the chaos, confusion and turmoil that created the atmosphere that was needed for the screenwriter turned director to convey his vision to movie goers. It is this eternal state of confusion, madness and anger that makes Schrader such a crucial figure in the founding of modern cinema, because what is modern cinema? It is a hard question to answer. We all see different movies. We see what we like and it does not necessarily have to be considered modern cinema. At the time of Schrader’s rise in the mid 70s, American cinema was starting to acquire a certain power. Unlike the 60s, where experimenting with the technicalities of filmmaking such as improvisation, shooting on location or the use of handheld cameras was the main focus, the 70s focused on the attitude that was felt on the streets of American cities, mainly New York and Los Angeles, two metropolitan areas that differed enormously both in their landscape as well as their attitude. Around those years a new wave of young film directors emerged, all of them willing to change the course of cinema, willing to introduce a sort of spirit that cinema hadn’t been able to capture before. There was Scorsese, Lucas, Spielberg, Coppola and De Palma. The five amigoes who grabbed cinema by the throat and produced some of the most revolutionary pictures. Schrader, on the other hand, did not make the cut. Perhaps because he came from a different part of the United States (Grand Rapids, MI), or perhaps because he simply wasn’t as talented and as well-liked by the studios of the time. But one thing is certain: Schrader had the same thirst to talk about the issues that troubled him and his generation, the issues that rocked his world.

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The openness of violence in Taxi Driver.

Schrader’s thirst and need to be heard might have probably been the result of years spent working as a cab driver in Los Angeles, where he faced off with his demons on a nightly basis. His own depression, loneliness and anger translated into what we now know as Scorsese’s masterpiece – Taxi Driver.  Indeed, one of Schrader’s earliest credits is writing the tale of a lonely cab driver in New York named Travis Bickle who decides to kill the favored presidential candidate. In this case, Schrader’s credit might only be that of a writer but the overall frustration with society comes through like in no other of his own feature films. PS creates one of the most complex characters ever portrayed on screen using every single characteristic that would have been considered vulgar and X-rated ten years prior to the release of this film; a lonely, dirty, mentally disturbed war vet in search of nothing, wanting nothing, enraged with the state of things, with tendencies of self-harm and sociopathic behavior. Travis’ world is the world we now know from numerous recent crime films such as Good TimeCollateral, American Gangster and Training Day. The idea of using an anti-hero as the protagonist and placing him in the middle of a sewer such as the filthy streets of East Village, populated by pimps, murderers and prostitutes, is a clear outcry for society to wake up, for cinema to start showing the real problems, the human issues that can trouble and be relevant even among the lowest members of our social hierarchy. The concept of having the anti-hero try to save a young, underage hooker, played by Jodi Foster, was at the time an idea that made countless heads shake in disgust. Taxi Driver showed everyone how low cinema can reach in search of an important story, a vital element of today’s cinema: a unique, unsettling atmosphere of threat and discomfort that can be found in some of the most popular movies of recent years including Nightcrawler, a prime example of today’s openness toward extravagant, borderline uncomfortable storytelling.

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Travis Bickle. A character for the ages.

Finally, in 1978 and 1979 Schrader managed to get the required budget for two excellent directorial efforts, which aside from his later Mishima and Affliction, are his best work to date. The two films are Blue Collar and Hardcore. Both features come at the viewer in waves, like rapid machine gun fire, grabbing the viewer by the throat without letting go until the final second. Blue Collar, unlike Hardcore, focuses on the unit of a group, and more accurately: a group of three autoworkers and the union looming over them. It is about the force and at the same time, the powerlessness of a group that faces a clear rejection from the rest of society. The three protagonists, all behind their dues, wanted by the tax-man, committed to their families, are a representation of the underbelly of America, the common man struggling to make ends meet. Schrader tortures his characters with confrontations and challenges that can either make them or break them. There is no middle line for Schrader, it is all about the determination to succeed mixed with the awareness of the fact that the American Dream is nothing but a fairy tale for kids. The three men, played by Pryor, Keitel and Kotto are trapped from all sides; these are men whose lives have lost meaning, and yet they have to push forward, which leads us to interpret this film as a social commentary sparked by a heartbreaking character study of three imperfect individuals who belong to an imperfect society.

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Three men unable to escape their reality.

Hardcore, on the other hand, is a film solely focused on one character, Jake VanDorn, (played to perfection by George C. Scott), and this character’s individual quest to find his missing daughter. Sounds familiar, huh? Indeed, Schrader’s violent, psychologically disturbing film about a desperate midwestern businessman looking for his daughter in sex shops and titty bars can be described as an accurate precursor to the Taken series, as well as other modern-day depictions of an individual standing up to a system, even in blockbusters like John Wick. Again, it is Schrader’s ability and fierce determination to dive into the most disturbing social environments that set him apart from his contemporaries. The contrast between VanDorn’s religious background and the pornographic underbelly of LA and San Diego that he has to go through make of him the quintessential modern character; strong yet weak, stable yet capable of losing his mind very easily, innocent yet incredibly violent, religious yet lacking in true faith. This was a character that at the time was not wished to be seen or even acknowledged since it clearly pointed in the wrong direction; a direction Hollywood was not willing to take considering its strong and permanent will to remain a conventional medium, a medium of traditional, conservative characters. Schrader, known for being a blunt artist, said to hell with it! and rolled the dice, and what mattered was not the final outcome of the dice, but the sheer act of rolling it.

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The state of confusion of Jake VanDorn and his descent into madness.

The act itself, rolling the dice in a dark alley, made of Schrader a voice worth listening to, similar to the raspy voice of a disturbed individual on the street, talking to himself, preaching to the crowd of passers-by. The voice, distinct, angry, loud, made of Schrader an under-appreciated and often forgotten figure of modern cinema. He wasn’t the one setting the rules like Spielberg and Scorsese; he was simply someone who taught viewers and aspiring filmmakers to always speak in their own language, articulate their own thoughts, profess what they feel is important and be personal. Because at the end of the day, that is what modern cinema is all about; having different voices be heard, as loud, or as shy or even as vulgar as they may be. Let them be heard.

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It may be worth looking out for the next cab driver.

How to Get Away with a Stinker

How to Get Away with a Stinker

Many people have asked my opinion on what I consider a bad movie, or what makes a director bad. The answer to these two questions could have been simple: Michael Bay and his entire filmography, Zack Snyder and his superhero fascination, M. Night Shyamalan and a big chunk of his last few movies, but in this case my answer is different. My answer is based on the simple concept of ‘bad’. What makes a director ‘bad’? Take M. Night, for instance; he has made some very good movies (Unbreakable, The Sixth Sense) as well as some very, very, very bad ones (The HappeningAfter Earth). Fine. That is fine. Why? Because the man has his own vision, and as distorted and trashy as it can be at times, it is still his vision. His movies have a trademark Shyamalan tag attached to them, meaning no one else could have made them that way. Even in his biggest flops he showed character and style, like in The Village, where the story misses, but the character and gothic genre filmmaking do not. Then who do I consider a bad film director if not the ones I already mentioned, who are infamous for releasing well below mediocre films every two-three years? It is someone who is never mentioned in the conversation, and yet someone who is so mediocre and whose movies are so average in their attempt to be great that I cannot ignore the dismissal of this name: Scott Cooper.

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Scott Cooper directing Christian Bale in Out of the Furnace.

Who is Scott Cooper? Well, for starters he emerged in 2009 and got Jeff Bridges his first, well deserved Oscar, with the movie Crazy Heart, about the life of a failed country musician. Four years later he returned with Out of the Furnace, supported by a stellar cast (Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker and the late Sam Shepard), in order to tell the story of a steelworker in small town America who seeks to avenge his brother’s violent death. Then, 2015’s acclaimed and presumed ‘return to form’ by Johnny Depp, with the tale of Bostonian crime lord ‘Whitey’ Bulger in Black Mass, and finally, last year’s neo-western, Hostiles. Now, if someone unfamiliar with this man’s movies, looks at what I’ve just written, looks at the acting credits, the titles, the fact that I described some of these movies as ‘acclaimed’ and Oscar nominated, will think I’m out of my element calling Scott Cooper one of, if not the worst director working in Hollywood today. However, I stand by my opinion and here is why…

All those movies I just mentioned are average. Yes, they are average. From an objective point of view they are average and nothing can change that. Cooper has directed some of the best actors working today and helped one of the most iconic ones (Bridges) get his first Oscar, sweeping all major awards ceremonies. But… is he the one to congratulate? First of all, Crazy Heart is your typical Hollywood redemption story. A middle-aged failed country musician, struggling with alcohol, women and money, all at the same time, tries to make ends meet and taste what could turn out to be his last bittersweet drop of happiness and love. This story has Jeff Bridges written all over it, country legend, known for his heavy Southern accents and the walk of a man of the West, he is perfect for this part. And here is where the movie ends. Cooper limits himself to dressing up Bridges in country boots, putting him on a stage and letting him sing country tunes in a sleazy bar. When it comes to emotion and showing Bad Blake’s true colors (Bridges’ character), Cooper is helpless, lacking any sort of creativity, drive and understanding. It is all Bridges. Him and his deep, bear-like voice take over the character of a miserable drunk and elevate him to a protagonist for the ages, a man afraid to let go of his guitar and keep on with the rolling times.

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The misery of Bad Blake.

Out of the Furnace, Cooper’s following feature film, could not even be saved by the multi-dimensional cast he was offered to work with. What could have been a thrilling experience, perhaps similar to No Country for Old Men, quickly turns into a vague, lifeless, predictable attempt at genre filmmaking. Cooper desperately tries to tell this simple revenge story as if he was handling a much more complicated project. The potential of this movie lies in its simplicity. Many indie movies have been capable of telling simple revenge stories (Blue Ruin for example, a brilliant indie effort from 2013) by sticking to the basics and focusing on what can be improved, instead of what can be changed. Cooper doesn’t get it, and it’s not even a proof of his ambition (there isn’t any to speak of), when he tries to combine multiple storylines and merge them into one (the steelworker brother, the soldier brother, the drug lord and the investigating police officer). Instead of creating an eerie, atmospheric thriller, Cooper gets away with a very shallow modern-day drama that fails under every aspect: action, emotion, suspense, timing and delivery of any sort of message. The film is not about brotherhood, it is not about corruption in America nor about the basic human instinct such as the art of survival. The only spark Out of the Furnace has to offer is a few sequences of bang-bang bloody action which don’t result in plot development. Once I was done watching this movie I suddenly realized what Scott Cooper is getting away with in broad daylight: a career in filmmaking; a career in shallow, B-type, empty and mediocre filmmaking, that specializes in pleasing the easily entertained crowds of viewers and leaving the critics with an average yet satisfied score.

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What could have been a good thriller.

Unfortunately, Out of the Furnace wasn’t Cooper’s defining hit. No. His supposed masterpiece of mediocrity was released in 2015, carried by Johnny Depp’s deadpan, make-up covered, pale face and blue eyes – Black Mass is the title (which I also wrote about here). After failing in delivering a story of violence and crime set in present-day America, Cooper dives into the grimy, filthy underbelly of 1970s Boston, a city ruled not by the authorities, but by the omnipresent hand of a man named ‘Whitey’ Bulger, a ruthless killer who got caught in 2011 aged 81, after almost 20 years of being listed as one of the top most wanted men by the FBI. Now, one would think, here is a chance for Scott Cooper to prove his worth and redeem himself by turning to the gangster genre. Unfortunately, that’s not the case as Cooper has no sense of balance between the documentary side of the movie, where we follow fictionalized testimonies and confessions from associates, friends and Bulger’s family members, and the blue-collar, cold, thriller side of the movie, where Whitey is simply presented as a dumb, irrational monster who relies on violence as a means of expression in his daily life. Cooper loses any sort of control over the outcome of his film, twisting and turning and desperately trying to make this gangster story look interesting. ‘Look’ is the right word, since the movie is the opposite of interesting in storytelling terms, therefore, only the ‘look’, the design, cinematography and production come off as decent. Unfortunately, Black Mass is not an arthouse film, which means it cannot solely rely on the saying ‘style over substance’ as it sets out from the get-go to tell the story of who Bulger really was. And it is here that Cooper fails miserably, perhaps intimidated by his predecessors in the gangster genre such as Scorsese’s Goodfellas and  De Palma’s Carlito’s Way, he directs his movie with the attitude of a timid, shy twelve-year-old in awe of his biggest idols, and rightly so, but this causes the movie to lack character and identity. Critics raved about this movie, with Peter Travers leading the way, naming it a top 10 movie of 2015, but clearly failed to see that Cooper’s mob drama is nothing but a plotless Superbowl commercial, meaning this 2-hour long movie could have been limited to its teaser trailer, which in contrast had a certain energy to it, a tempo and character. Black Mass on its own is a mediocre showing disguised as a good rendition of a long-gone time period in American history, and another piece of evidence that indicates that Scott Cooper is not a good film director, although continuously hailed as one.

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A snapshot that sums up Black Mass: empty, violent, ugly to look at.

Last but not least, last year’s Hostiles could have been special. It should have been special and yet again, Cooper created a work of such mediocrity that even his biggest fans had to point out the major flaws of this preachy neo-western. In the hands of a more skilled director, the story of an Army officer escorting a dying Cheyenne war chief back to his tribal land could have turned out to be a major cinematic sensation, drawing inspiration from John Ford’s The Searchers, and considering westerns are quickly fading into oblivion in today’s world of Hollywood cinema. However, in Cooper’s hands this film becomes yet another phony attempt at selling a product instead of making a movie for people to watch and learn from. The director does, in fact, try to convey a message of some sort, related to the inherited violence and the insanity of war and destruction as well as man’s constant need of fighting for his own little piece of land, but the finished product is nothing but a mess of well shot images that amount to nothing other than a conclusion about the evil that lies in the heart of every single white man involved in the history of the making of the Wild West. Cooper’s eternal fascination with blood, gore and meaningless violence is what brings this movie down and prevents it from being a good directorial effort; it is not all about technique – it is about the ideas that spark the technique. Clearly, Cooper does not see anything beyond the simple act of violence. It is not fun (like in Tarantino’s films, or even Shane Black’s), it is not cold blooded (like in Scorsese’s pictures), it just is, for the sake of being.

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Not a good Western.

So what is my major takeaway from this post? A bad director is someone who directs films without a purpose, without an idea of some kind, without belief. A bad director is someone who tries to pass his own movie as good, who makes it look pretty but does not look deeper and refuses to adjust its evident flaws (Nicolas Winding Refn is another one, although with a couple of good movies under his belt) not because of too much pride, but because of a critical lack of self-awareness regarding his/her own work. When I watch a film directed by Scott Cooper, I don’t feel anger nor satisfaction. I don’t feel suspense nor excitement. I don’t feel frustration. I feel nothing. And that is the worst feeling one can have when experiencing a film.

 

Like a Playlist

Like a Playlist

David Lynch once said;

“I don’t know why people expect art to make sense. They accept the fact that life doesn’t make sense.”

These words ring incredibly true since since most audiences want their films to be straightforward, accessible, easy enough to understand, simple enough to accompany their hot nachos with cheese sauce dripping all over the floor. Is that really what movies are for? To make things simple? Some, of course, yes. Some movies are meant to be enjoyed with the family, the girlfriend, boyfriend; movies with loud explosions, witty dialogue, packed with action and a smart plot, something along the lines of the Lethal Weapon series, The Nice Guys, RockyThe Wolf of Wall Street, etc. The second category is the one that demands a viewer’s full immersion; a complete dedication to the viewing experience. The director of the film needs you to get sucked into the world of the film he or she are presenting to you. Otherwise it’s pointless. David Lynch is one of them. Stanley Kubrick is one of them. But above all, Terrence Malick is one of them. And his latest film, Song to Song, starring Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett, is the ultimate piece of evidence to this statement.

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Are you ready for the adventure?

Malick, a wealthy biologist and oilman, as well as one of the most introvert film directors that have ever walked the earth, presented the movie himself at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. Yes, a man who has been avoiding cameras, award shows and interviews for the past 40 years finally emerged on the surface of an indie film festival to present his latest movie about love. What this could mean is that Song to Song holds something special, not only for the audience, but for the director himself. What could be the reason for this? As I watched the film a few nights ago, I realized how Malick’s incredibly intricate take on life really is. We know and love him for Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, his most accessible works that proved he had enough skill to go from making indie road movies to making large-scale war epics in a span of 20 years. But then something happened and Malick went from seeing directing movies as a hobby more than anything else to dishing out a film every 2-3 years, (3 in the last year and a half!) and doing this by using a very alienated style of filmmaking that has been perceived by most audiences as a ‘pretentious, slow, plotless bore.’

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You have to be ready, because Malick doesn’t let up.

Song to Song may not be his most accessible film. It isn’t. But it has the same emotional kick that The Tree of Life had, the last film that saw Malick be up for an Academy Award in 2011, and that To the Wonder and Knight of Cups lacked.  What makes it stand out from the rest of his improvised, slow, meandering epics, is that it manages to portray life, and people dealing with it, in an extremely honest and heartbreaking manner. While The Tree of Life focused on the concept of family, and successfully so, and while To the Wonder  and Knight of Cups dealt with very little, in fact remaining an unfocused artsy mess, Song to Song talks about the concept of love using all the tools Malick’s collected over the years of experience. Love is not easy to capture on camera. Most love stories don’t succeed in delivering the right message. Aside from La La Land, there’s not a love story that I can think of worth considering in the last couple of years. Then along comes Malick and his bold vision of love makes you realize how great the cinematic medium can be at times.

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Malick and Lubezki at their finest.

Here, Malick delivers the oldest, most well known story in the book: a love triangle, two good friends, a musician (Ryan Gosling) and a music producer (Michael Fassbender) falling in love with the same girl (Rooney Mara). What at first seems like the usual snooze-fest of falsified emotions for the screen, soon turns into a compelling character study that uses time, as per Malick’s tradition, to tell the story the right way – the only way. Malick, similarly to what Lynch said, does not want the viewer to understand what happens on the silver screen. He wants the viewer to imagine what happens, and he does this by telling what could have been the most linear story out there in a way most filmmakers would not dare to. Song to Song works like a music playlist turned on ‘shuffle mode’.  It jumps from song to song, from album to album, changing melodies, moods and tones. It plays with different emotions at different times, and all of this is never meant to reach an end, just like a playlist set on ‘repeat’. At first, we meet the characters, who introduce themselves by looking devastated, shell shocked, victims of something that has happened not so long ago. Again, we are not meant to understand, we are meant imagine what song has just finished playing and what song is about to come on next. We cannot predict it. We can only imagine. And that is how this film develops from that point on.

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Who are we, really?

Soon, the two friends get into an argument and two different women appear alongside Rooney Mara’s character. One is broken and self-destructive (Natalie Portman’s character), the other one is mature and experienced enough to know when it’s time to go away (Cate Blanchett’s character). Malick shapes these relationships like Polaroid snapshots; quick, unfocused snapshots that serve as a temporary time capsule. As viewers, we witness specific moments in each relationship; the first kiss, the first argument, the first disconnection and the first realization of how things really are. All of these moments mean nothing on their own, just like snapshots. But once Malick puts them together, creates a photo album out of them, that’s when it all comes around like a strong tide rushing in to blow over the sand. It is only then that we start seeing the bigger picture, and that is, Malick’s incredibly unique take on life.

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A simple love story.

With the help of one of the greatest living cinematographers, Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick uses his camera like a spy. We get the chance to go through empty hallways, enter concert stages and observe our protagonists from a safe distance. Every now and then, the camera pushes in close, almost in a threatening manner, in order for us to get a better look at what our characters really think and feel, which leads me to my next point about Malick’s take on life. Most people act as if his characters (especially Ben Affleck’s from To the Wonder and Christian Bale’s from Knight of Cups) are nothing but empty, shallow cartoon characters with paper-thin background and paper-thin everything. In some cases it may seem so. But in Song to Song we get the complete opposite. Only a fool could not read the facial expressions of our protagonists. The voice-over, a vital element of every single Malick film, does not mean a thing in this case – it is useless. Song to Song plays out like a silent movie accompanied by two elements – music (ranging from hard rock to classical, hip-hop to religious chants) and character’s close-ups. In the rare instances we get to be close to each character, we get a slice of honest, clear emotions. Malick does, in fact, bring the best out of his cast. Mara plays her usual innocent-looking self but this time, cuts deeper than usual. Same goes for the rest of the players. They are like songs. They hit different notes at different times their interpretation varies based on time and their presentation. Take Fassbender’s character, for example. He’s the greedy producer, the wealthy jackass who got rich thanks to other people’s talent. At times we interpret his greed as mean-spirited, evil and crooked, as he snorts lines of coke, goes from party to party and mistreats people around him. And yet, at times his character’s greed is presented as a method of self-defense against loneliness, alienation and disappointment. His only weapon. His only way of being. Like life, Fassbender’s character is a messy, off-beat song that never quite reaches a stable melody. It never sounds the same way.

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A hand – threatening and gentle at the same time.

Going from location to location, moving across time and space, across desert landscapes, city streets and beautiful sunsets, Song to Song injects life into a simple love story that could have been the biggest misfire in Malick’s career. We get to observe characters that are intricate and real. Some are too broken to be repaired, like Natalie Portman’s character, who cannot cope with the weight of life and a newly-found love. Others wish they could turn back the clock, like Rooney Mara’s character, who acts like a little girl, afraid of what can possibly await her on the next turn. The two friends never clash with their emotions. Like in life, there is a certain understanding right below the surface that never allows them to express themselves explicitly face-to-face. They are trapped. And that’s partly the beauty of how this story is told. Don’t let IMDb’s 5.8 rating fool you. This is a movie that has the ability to speak by being silent. Whereas other directors would have inserted unnecessary dialogue, Malick remains silent, letting the camerawork, the music and the actors do the work. It is not a masterpiece but it is an experience. It treats life head-on and does not let up for a second. Most importantly, it never tries to understand itself. It simply is. Like life. Like the next song on a playlist.

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Let it sweep you off your feet.

 

What’s Going On?

What’s Going On?

It is no secret that the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, are two of the greatest living directors. There is a reason for that. The Coens are ambitious and even though most of their films deal with nihilism (The Big Lebowski), impotence (Barton Fink), doomsday (No Country for Old Men) and failure (Inside Llewyn Davis), the Coens are filmmakers that try to grasp the enormity of life and the numerous trials and tribulations that come with it. Their secret lies in their ability at poking fun at everything and everybody and getting away with it. Why? Because they know there are no absolute answers. Everything is a farce. A beautiful one. Sure, in Burn After Reading the two wrote and directed a story about conspiracy, secret service, treason to showcase the insanity and the stupidity of those who are convinced of outsmarting other people. That was back in 2008, right after the economic crisis revealed holes and leakage not only in the US system, but worldwide as well. Then, a year later, the two brothers came out with one of their darker, perhaps their most underrated movie to date: A Serious Man. A totally different beast but one that might have been aimed at pointing fingers at those who always want to know one single thing: WHAT’S GOING ON?

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Larry desperately trying to modify life.

It is 1967. A suburb in the state of Minnesota. Enter Larry Gopnik: middle-aged physics professor, husband and father of two, a boy and a girl. Larry’s Jewish like the Coens, and like the Coens in their teenage years, his son is getting ready to become a man by going through a Bar Mitzvah. This involves hours of learning long religious chants in Hebrew. What Larry’s son is going through is exactly what Larry is going through himself. Confusion. An omnipresent state of confusion. However, unlike Larry, his son accepts this state of confusion: he embraces it by memorizing the sound of the words spoken by the rabbi, rather than understanding them. He spends most of his time listening to rock music instead of paying attention to what the teachers teach him in Hebrew school. Smoking weed and gazing at the glaring TV set becomes his habit: a simple way of refusing to understand and oversee the bigger picture, because why should a 13 year old boy worry about so many meaningless things?

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Manipulated by everything and everyone.

Larry, on the other hand, is a man who believes in numbers, who believes in logic and concrete evidence. He believes in Yes or No. Good or Bad. Cold or Hot. That’s it. In a time of such great social change with the Vietnam War in the distant background, cheap sci-fi shows on TV and the power of rock and roll, Larry is incapable of coping with this new reality. Each day he goes through the same routine. Each day he starts from scratch. But then, one day, Hasham strikes upon him with a series of odd and troubling events. His wife decides to leave him for his friend, a snobbish Jew by the name of Sy Ableman. Larry’s ominous neighbor starts building a shed  by crossing Larry’s property line. Then, his tenure application is threatened because of hate mail directed at Larry from an anonymous sender. Finally, a Korean student asks him to grant him a passing grade in Mathematics and leaves a bribe on his desk. When Larry tries to confront him about it, the father of the student shows up to his house and threatens to sue him. Larry looks at the man, helpless, and asks if the money on his desk was left by his son or not. The student’s father answers: ”Please. Accept the mystery.”

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Larry likes numbers.

The mystery. The mystery of what? Larry cannot figure this out. And the Coens keep pushing him into a corner. First by putting him in a car accident, then by killing off his wife’s lover and making him pay for the funeral arrangements, finally by having his brother get into trouble with the law and having him pay for his brother’s lawyer. In other words, everything is going wrong for Larry. But the Coens make it clear enough: it’s Larry’s fault. This poor, clueless sob is bringing all of this on himself. By doing what? By not accepting the mystery. In fact, the only man who Larry can relate to is his own brother, Arthur, a loner who lives at Larry’s place and keeps his own notebook, filled with mathematical schemes and formulas that are meant to solve the ”probability map of the universe.” Arthur’s quest to solve the world has driven him to insanity and physical sickness, and yet, Larry does not realize it. He is too caught up in his own quest, his own personal reasons.

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Obsession through a close-up.

Larry’s visit to the three local rabbis ends with nothing but disappointment. The first rabbi, the junior one named Scott, is not experienced enough to actually give him a reasonable answer. What he does instead is feed Larry with the same worn-out speech about changing perspectives, starting from scratch and as he puts it toward the end: ”You have to see things as expressions of God’s will. […] Just look at the parking lot, Larry.” The young rabbi, unable to really transmit any kind of profound knowledge, relies on precisely what Larry hates about the world – blind belief in something that may or may not be there. These words deepen the cut in Larry’s mind. To a man like Larry, a teacher, a mathematician, what is perspective? Why should perspective change? That is why he goes to see the second rabbi, Nachtner, the more experienced one who is also responsible for organizing Larry’s son’s Bar Mitzvah. This rabbi, as experienced as he is, believes in the power of the parable. The parable he tells Larry is about a dentist who finds himself questioning God’s message engraved on the inside of one of his patient’s teeth. Unfortunately, this parable leads nowhere, and makes Larry even more frustrated. He stands and says: ”It sounds like you don’t know anything!”  Finally, the wisest of all rabbis, Marshak, does not even grant Larry a meeting. He shuts himself in his office, like God shutting the gates to his property, and leaves Larry with nothing but a sour taste in his mouth; a taste so vile and putrid that only the magic vision of Larry’s beautiful neighbor, Mrs. Shamsky, will be able to pull away for a short while.
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As he enters Mrs. Shamsky’s place, Larry can be considered a simple mortal, finally, a serious man with a serious man’s desire to make love, to cheat and indulge in physical pleasures. The beautiful neighbor offers him marijuana and the two get high together just like Larry’s son with his friends. For a brief moment, Larry is a serious man. Perhaps, that’s all he ever wanted. But the moment does not last long. Once reality hits Larry in the head, he’s gone for good. There are cops knocking on his door, religious ceremonies waiting for his attendance, family matters that are to be taken care of, his tenure that is at risk because of rude anonymous letters, and last but not least, his ultimate quest that needs answers at all costs.

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Mrs. Shamsky, a vision or a reality?

What the Coen brothers are able to create in this movie is a sense of feverish obsession; a kind of obsession that gnaws at every aspect of our lives. This obsession takes different forms in Larry’s life: his creepy neighbor, Sy and his snobbish attitude, the rabbis, his brother’s sickness, the student’s father, the tenure committee, you name it. Through careful direction and beautiful cinematography by the masterful Roger Deakins that consists of mostly close-ups and medium shots, the Coens put the audience in Larry’s shoes. Whatever Larry feels, be it a crumbling physical pain or another terrible disappointment, the audience feels it too. As viewers, we are forced to witness a man struggle to find answers to questions that obviously do matter, but perhaps do not need answering. And through their brilliant writing, the brotherly duo play with language and the inability to communicate even in such a tight knit community as the Jewish one presented in this film. The language of Hebrew, the language of the chosen people, instead of being presented as a helpful way of bonding between community members is presented as a barrier that blocks any sort of outside perspective. The world in A Serious Man is so closed, shut-off and isolated from the rest, that its characters are naturally prevented from questioning the larger aspect of life. The minimalistic stylization used by the filmmakers serves one single purpose: to make Larry feel alone. Alone with the questions.

Alone with the mystery.

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Alone with the mystery.

 

What we Talk About When we Talk About Lynch

What we Talk About When we Talk About Lynch

David Lynch: the mysterious mind-fucker behind such films as EraserheadLost HighwayBlue Velvet and Mulholland Drive has been the subject of countless debates, Q&A panels and interviews, which all aimed at one thing: try to access his mind and the process the director goes through to create the unique films he’s created over the last 40 years.
Lynch to most movie buffs is the Mt. Rushmore of arthouse filmmaking. A man who’s never answered the question WHY? Why is a dead man with a clear wound to the head standing in the middle of a living room in Blue Velvet? Why is Lost Highway’s creepy Mystery Man living in an empty shed in the desert? WHY? Well, for once someone decided to make a documentary on Lynch without asking him that question. Without asking him any questions really. The film I want to talk about today is probably one of my recent favorites due to its impeccable and stylish slow-burning discovery of a man who willingly hides in the shadows.  The film is David Lynch: The Art Life.

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Lynch’s silent playground.

What makes The Art Life so special is precisely the absence of any sort of questions. The documentary in fact works pretty much like a hidden camera in Lynch’s barricaded Beverly Hills mansion, amidst all the cigarette smoke and Lynch’s short bursts of ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’. The truth of the matter is, that the objective of this film is to present the unknown side of Lynch to his beloved viewers – the artistic side. Do not expect a biography. Lynch, left sitting alone in front of a hanging microphone, briefly mentions his childhood, a couple of girlfriends and then speeds all the way to the time he began painting. And that’s when the magic begins. That’s when we get to meet the man himself.

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It is pointless to try and understand.

It is a fact that Lynch’s main source of inspiration for his movies as well as his hit TV series Twin Peaks are the nightmares he’s had since he was a child. But unlike most people, Lynch talks about his nightmares almost as if they were the most delicate dreams one could ever hope to have. His nightmares are what drive him, what motivate him to get up from his bed and pick up a paint brush. They are his bread and butter and the reason for as to why he decided to become an artist. His life was casual, at times boring and uneventful, and that’s why since he was a child he allowed nightmares to take over reality. That’s how a sixth sense was born inside his mind.

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Lynch and his daughter, to whom this film was dedicated.

As viewers of his work, we are certainly unable to pinpoint what Lynch is all about. Damn it, if we ever had an answer for that, half of the beauty of his movies would be gone. Who else could make us question not only the movie we’re watching but ourselves if not Lynch? The Art Life is special because it finds the right balance between personal and professional. It invites the viewer to ask more questions and to be more attentive without revealing too much. It also urges the viewer to fight through the discomfort of everyday life. Through Lynch, one can come to the conclusion that in order to become an artist, one not only needs to push through all the boundaries and invisible walls life sets up for each individual, but also learn to embrace them, to embrace the difficulties, the filth, the sadness. In Lynch’s mind they become valuable elements of his work. And as the man with the glorious white hair sits down to reminisce over the time of the making of Eraserhead, he sighs and says: ”The art life. It was beautiful. Everything about it.”

And perhaps that really is the key to Lynch’s lock: the endless wonder and thirst for more life. More of THE life.

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At the end of it, you’ll be amazed.